Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — An expanded transit plan for Wake County that would grow bus service and create commuter and light rail lines “is not technically or financially feasible,” according to a report authored by two transit experts.
The report, by the John Locke Foundation (publisher of Carolina Journal), concludes that expanded transit is inappropriate for the Triangle region and that few commuters would take advantage of the new system.
“The basis for our finding is that the plan contains numerous optimistic assumptions, errors of fact or omission, and calculations that are at variance with standard practice in the transit industry,” wrote David Hartgen, emeritus professor of transportation studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Thomas Rubin, an Oakland, Calif.-based consultant specializing in public-sector accounting in projects involving transit, highways, and schools.
The authors criticized Wake County officials for failing to factor in cost of the current transit system, which they said would raise the bill by $2.1 billion. They also concluded that, under the proposal, the average time it would take a commuter to travel by train was “well over double” the time required to travel by car.
“Given that most of the current Wake County transit riders do not have access to automobiles for their transit trips, while the service expansion is primarily to areas where there is now little or no transit — and the vast majority of people in these areas do have access to automobiles — it is difficult to see why most people would give transit serious consideration in the new service areas,” Hartgen and Rubin wrote.
Wake County’s plan — presented as draft recommendations to county commissioners in November — is split between two stages. The first phase would expand bus service and create a 37-mile commuter rail line running from Garner to Durham, at a combined cost of $2.6 billion through 2040.
The second phase — called the “enhanced transit plan” — would establish a 14-mile light rail connecting downtown Cary to northeast Raleigh. The estimated tab: $1.1 billion.
The expanded bus and commuter rail service would be financed exclusively through local funds; the light rail expansion would rely on federal and state funds that might never materialize.
To bankroll the plan, planners would rely on a half-cent sales tax increase, a $10 per-car hike in the annual vehicle registration fee, increased vehicle rental fees, transit bonds, and higher rider fares. Wake County voters would have to approve the sales-tax increase at the ballot box.
The sales tax could appear on the ballot as early as November. In 2011, Durham voters OK’d a half-cent sales tax increase for transit, but Wake and Orange counties would have to follow suit to fund the regional transit system.
Support for the plan
Supporters of the recommendations say the proposed transit system would reduce congestion, improve air quality, and boost economic development.
“This plan is a practical plan,” wrote Wake County officials in the plan’s executive summary. “It is fiscally conservative, and it is reasonable and realistic. In it, we don’t promise more than we can deliver, based on funding sources that will be decided by voters and elected officials.”
Critics disagree, citing the Hartgen-Rubin report. “This report raises significant questions about the viability of Wake County’s transit plan,” said Michael Sanera, JLF director of research and local government studies. “Wake County officials owe it to taxpayers to address these serious issues before committing significant resources to a plan that appears unlikely to work.”
Proposals to expand Wake County’s transit infrastructure have languished for years due to the poor economy and scarcity of federal transit dollars. In 2006, plans for a light-rail transit line fell through after local officials failed to secure the necessary federal funds.
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.